The post-pandemic office: a thought leadership series for WSP

At the beginning of April 2020, with many of the world’s offices deserted, I began a weekly thought leadership series for WSP about how Covid-19 would transform the knowledge workplace. It ran to eight long-form features – almost 17,000 words – on everything from the cultural impact of physical distancing to virus-proofing the office environment, to whether companies will still bother having their own premises and what would make people want to go there when they are all set up to work from home. I also ghost-wrote six shorter pieces with WSP’s technical specialists.

As a long-term freelancer, one of the most striking transformations so far is the overnight switch from phone to video calls. Over the course of the series, I interviewed 50+ experts, glimpsing a dizzying variety of living rooms, spare rooms, home offices and gardens across Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.

The articles were published on WSP’s website as part of its Better Normal campaign, and they were widely shared on social media and republished elsewhere. We also compiled the whole thing into a 60-page PDF, Thoughts on the post-pandemic office.

Graphics by Sam Jenkins at Supermassive Creative; production editing by Nick Jones at Wordmule.

The Possible issue 06

We’ve just published issue 06 of The Possible, a magazine about the future of cities that my company Wordmule produces on behalf of global engineering firm WSP. And although much of the content was finalised before Covid-19 struck, the topics it covers remain just as relevant: the spread of the disease and its impact on different communities has been directly influenced by the way our cities are governed, the quality of the spaces we inhabit and the air we breathe.

This issue explores the future of healthcare in an age when pandemics are just one of the growing threats to humanity, and looks at the ways in which urban designers can deploy “nudge theory” to encourage healthier behaviours – just how far should we go? Our future health will be increasingly about data too. The mind-bogglingly enormous quantities generated by smart city technologies will be invaluable for creating healthier, more resilient places – but only if it is accessible to us, rather than hoarded and monetised by tech companies. So we have an in-depth feature about the vital but under-explored topic of data governance.

There are some inspiring solutions too: planned properly, micromobility could replace cars and plug gaps in public transit systems to bring about permanently clearer skies and more equal streets. And I love Nick Rose’s vision of how urban agriculture could deliver a secure, sustainable source of food, while making cities greener, more pleasant places to live.

Of course, climate change will continue to exert a major pressure on population health over the years, decades, centuries to come. The embodied carbon in buildings can account for one-third or more of their total greenhouse gas emissions, so we urgently need to get to grips with that too. We have a 12-page article about what we know, what we don’t and what designers can do to make a meaningful contribution to the fight against climate change.

All with a beautiful, slightly refreshed design by Sam Jenkins at Supermassive Creative and a hand-drawn cover by Aistė Stancikaitė.

“A ‘conscious city’ is going to happen because that’s where technology is leading us. But technology has a way of guiding human behaviour to bad habits”

Frustration drives some people to anger, some to despair, and some to write manifestos. It is into this last bracket that the British-Israeli architect, researcher, writer, speaker and idealist Itai Palti falls. The Conscious Cities Manifesto he co-authored with neuroscience professor Moshe Bar in 2015 was born of frustration, he says – though he usually prefers to put a more optimistic spin on it.

“I think the manifesto came out of this realization that we have so much more potential to put humans at the centre of the design process, and that it’s not being actualized. As a profession, architecture can have a lot of positive social impact but in practice there’s sometimes a laziness and an arrogance about it. I guess I can say that because I’m speaking from within.”

For all Palti’s readiness to criticize his peers, his ideas seem to have struck a chord. Over the last four years, he has rallied many of them to his cause of science-informed, human-centred design, alongside a diverse group of scientists, researchers and technologists. Palti was not the first to spot the synergies between neuroscience and architecture – San Diego’s Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) was founded in 2003 – but in marrying it to the opportunities of smart cities, he’s tapped into the zeitgeist. The Conscious Cities movement resonates with an array of current concerns, from wellbeing and mental health to techno-optimism and our darker fears about the unseen agendas we are hardcoding into an AI-driven world …

Read the rest of my interview with Itai Palti in issue 05 of The Possible.

Factories for creativity

Every day millions of people around the world go to one place: the office. Why? Technology has freed knowledge workers from the commute and the cubicle, and no one has their best ideas at their desk – and we’ll all be replaced by robots soon anyway. But the office continues to occupy a hallowed place in the corporate mindset and, if anything, a company’s premises are becoming even more essential to its identity and culture. In this article for issue 03 of The Possible, the thought leadership magazine that my company Wordmule produces for WSP, I explored the future of the workplace in an AI era.

The Possible issue 03

Out now: the latest issue of The Possible, the 72-page thought leadership magazine that my company Wordmule produces for global engineering company WSP. I plan, commission, write and edit the content; my partner Nick Jones takes care of production, and the design is by our long-time collaborator Sam Jenkins at Supermassive. Cover artwork by Noma Bar.

In this issue: the pursuit of wellness, the future of the workplace, how digital modelling is changing building design, gender equality in architecture, and what on earth are humans going to do when robots can outperform us at our jobs?

Cover of The Possible issue 03

“They looked at me, flabbergasted. They said ‘we never do anything for an entire afternoon’”

Education is a booming sector, thanks to a growing global population with a thirst for knowledge. But how can today’s schools and universities prepare for a world that doesn’t yet exist? In the latest issue of The Possible, the thought leadership magazine my company Wordmule produces for WSP, I compiled this 14-page infographic feature on the many challenges that the Fourth Industrial Revolution presents to educators around the world. What should next-generation learning spaces look like, how can we pay for a transformation on this scale, and how do you teach a digital native anything when they can just Google it?

Secret servers

They may be as vast as an Amazon distribution centre, as energy-hungry as a steelworks, and as critical as a power station or major hospital. Yet many of us will never have seen a data centre – or never noticed one. And that’s exactly how their owners want it. That’s because data centres are the internet. They are “the cloud”. They are the huge, humming sheds through which every email, Google search, online transaction, Netflix movie and Donald Trump tweet must pass as it circles the earth. Just a few minutes of downtime could be disastrous for the companies, governments and financial markets that rely on them, so data centres are designed to be constantly operational, and protected from every conceivable threat, natural or manmade. Anonymity is the first step in a rigorous high-security philosophy that leaves nothing to chance. In this feature for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, I spoke to the property professionals working in this specialised, sensitive market.

What this fortress approach can’t ensure is the cyber-security of the data within – arguably a much greater risk, as illustrated by the unprecedented cyber-attack last October that disrupted services across Europe and the US. After all, if you had the choice of mounting a Mission Impossible-style break-in, or hacking from the comfort of your armchair, which would you choose?

Modus_April 2017 cover

“Do academics do gnomes?”

“I’ll be honest: the gnomes keep me up at night worrying,” admits Professor Andrew Hudson-Smith, director of the Bartlett’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, or CASA, at University College London. “Is it academic? Do academics do gnomes?” On the desk in front of him sits a 3D-printed gnome of the garden variety, unpainted and not yet fitted with the Bluetooth transmitter that will replace its feet. “Probably not,” he concludes. “It’s probably frowned upon.”

CASA, however, does do gnomes. When it’s finished, this one and 29 clones will sit in solar-powered mushroom homes amongst the shrubbery of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London. They will be the most visible elements of a vast technology infrastructure underpinning the cutting-edge “Smart Park” project, which will have ubiquitous wifi, superfast broadband and a dense mesh of sensors monitoring everything from temperature and humidity, to the movement of crowds and even their emotions. Over the next decade, CASA will collect and analyse this data in order to understand and transform how people use the space and, looking further ahead, plan the smart urban districts of the future. I wrote this article about it for the Bartlett Review 2016.

The Possible: a thought-leadership magazine for WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff

Longstanding client WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff wanted to raise its profile as a thought leader in its chosen fields, so the global marketing team commissioned my company, Wordmule, to produce a new client publication.

The result is “The Possible”, a 68-page print magazine about the future of buildings and cities and the innovative ideas and technologies that can help them function better. It has an initial circulation of 10,000 targeted at a senior audience of architects, developers, contractors, city planners, government agencies and institutes, and building users worldwide.

To inform the magazine’s content, and the company’s thought leadership strategy more broadly, we conducted 30+ in-depth interviews with the company’s clients and partners around the world, as well as speaking to specialists and experts among its 36,000 employees. We then planned, commissioned, wrote and edited the articles, and managed the project throughout, working with creative agency Supermassive and printer Greenshires. The first issue of The Possible was published in November 2016, and the second is due out in spring 2017.

The first issue included articles by a diverse range of global contributors, as well as in-depth features on adapting healthcare and the built environment for an ageing demographic; modular construction and encouraging creativity in the workplace, and a stunning cover illustration by Noma Bar.

Cover of The Possible 01

Spot the difference

The construction industry’s luddite reputation is well deserved, but it’s modernising fast. It’s had no choice since the government set a deadline for every publicly procured project to be delivered using building information modelling from 2016. BIM is CAD on steroids – a detailed computer model backed by a comprehensive database with information on every building component. But does the finished jigsaw ever look like the picture on the box? It turns out that it does. At Telford Homes’ first BIM project, the mechanical and electrical engineers followed the model to the letter, with the result that the finished plant room looks strikingly similar (if a little bit grubbier). I asked them how they managed it in this case study for the BIM+ website.

What the plant room at at Telford Homes' Tweed House development looks like in the BIM model...
What the plant room looks like in the Autodesk Revit model…

... And the same plant room in real life.  Pictures courtesy of Telford Homes
… And the same plant room in real life.
Pictures courtesy of Telford Homes